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Saturday, June 13, 2020

Philoctetes and Compassion for Hercules on the Pyre

According to the most common legend of Hercules' death, no one but Hercules' friend Philoctetes,  son of King Poeas of the city of Meliboea in Thessaly, would light his funeral pyre. For his compassion, Philoctetes  received Hercules' bow and arrows.

Later, Philoctetes as one of the many eligible Greeks who competed for the hand of Helen, the Spartan princess, was required to participate in the Trojan War to reclaim Helen for Menelaus when she was stolen away by Paris.  On his way to the Trojan War, Philoctetes was bitten by a snake that Hera sent to molest him as punishment for his service to Hercules. The wound festered and began to smell so his Greek companions stranded Philoctetes on the island of Lemnos. 

When the Greeks reached Troy, Helenus, the prophetic son of King Priam, revealed under torture that one of the conditions for the Greeks to win the war was that they needed the bow and arrows of Hercules as some of the arrows were those dipped in the poison blood of the hydra. So Odysseus led a group back to Lemnos to retrieve Hercules' weapons and discovered Philoctetes was still alive. Odysseus tricked the weaponry away from Philoctetes, but Diomedes refused to take the weapons without the man. A deified Hercules came down from Olympus and told Philoctetes to go with them and he would be healed by the son of Asclepius and win great honor as a hero of the Achaean army. In some versions of the legend, Philoctetes is the archer, using Hercules bow and poisoned arrows, that ultimately killed Paris.


Image: Hercules on the Pyre by Guillaume Coustou the Elder, 1704, The Louvre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen (2006)

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